Interview with Macka B

January 21, 2016

This piece was published in the November/December 2015 issue of Riddim. Here it is in English for the first time…

Macka B is not afraid to speak his mind. A conscious Rasta, strict vegan and lyrical deejay for over 30 years, he has provided strong opinions across hundreds of songs concerning how we eat, drink, smoke, vote, think, spend and pray.

But today the thing he is arguing against most forcefully is not colonialism, big pharma, commercial farming or the government. It’s the idea of coincidence.

“Me nah believe in coincidence” he says, his toothy smile as deep as his voice, his eyes peering keenly through his ever present sunglasses, “We bun coincidence. Everything is just a vibes”.

Everything has happened for a reason in the life of the tall man named Christopher McFarlane – although most of it didn’t happen as it was planned. The way his parents came to England, intending to return to Jamaica, but stayed. The way his career started when he was caught chatting lyrics by friends he thought had left the building. The way an unfair arrest by racist police and a spell in youth prison hardened his resolve never to go back. And the way, years later, being accepted by his Jamaican heroes showed how far he’d come from a shared family room in one of the roughest parts of the region the English call “the Black Country”.

Many of these memories appear on new album Never Played a 45. Produced by London’s vintage rhythm revivers and record shop owners Peckings, it’s a departure from the Mad Professor’s digital “roots ragga” that made Macka’s name. It brings him full circle to the classic 60s and 70s backings he heard at a neighbour’s “blues dances” as a boy.

Christopher McFarlane was born in Wolverhampton on February 2nd, 1961. His parents arrived in the 50s hoping to make some money and re-join the five daughters and two sons they left behind. Instead, finding their economic situation not as expected, they remained and had two more children, Christopher and his brother. “My father worked in a factory. He worked very hard. My mother was a housewife. A typical Jamaican family.”

Wolverhampton was nothing like the Hanover hills from which his parents hailed. “It was cold,” he recalls “A lot of litter, dog mess, dogs roaming around, outside toilets – it was rough. When we were first born, my mum, dad and my brother were all in one room. But the love was there”.

Christopher attended Oxley School and Pendeford High. He loved sports and enjoyed maths, English and geography. “I give thanks I didn’t mess about too much. It held me in good stead – especially for writing lyrics. You have to have a good command of the language. I still love to read”.

Music was absorbed closer to home. The father of one of his best friends, four doors away, had a sound system, Lord Barley, which played every Saturday night. “We’d hear the music from his house and sometimes I used to stay there when the blues was going on downstairs. I loved the heavy bass, and we used to say to each other ‘One day we’ll have our own sound’.”

Christopher’s friend’s dad eventually passed the sound down to his son and “Macka” as they called him, joined its teenage crew. Already under the influence of Rastafari through the records they spun, they renamed it Exodus. “We were going to take the sound to Africa. That’s how into it we were as youths.” They watched Roots, read Marcus Garvey and the autobiography of Haile Selassie. “Rastafari was like a life for us. At the time black people were at the bottom of the economic ladder and racism was rife”.

It’s hard to believe this formidable stage performer was once too shy to tell his peers he secretly chanted to the B sides of discs in his room. “Going to the record shop from school and bringing home music to play on the sound – that was enough for me. Carrying boxes and being part of the sound system vibes. But I used to try at home copying I Roy, U Roy and Big Youth”.

One day Exodus “strung up” at a local youth club and left Chris to watch the sound while they got something to eat. Thinking everyone had gone, he picked up the microphone and tried it out. Instead they ran back saying ‘We didn’t know you could chat on the mic’, “So from then I had to keep chatting on the sound. I stopped being a pirate and made up lyrics of my own because at the dance people went crazy because they could relate”. He took the name Macka B from the Bible – because Maccabees were warriors. Decades later, influenced by the writing of Nana Banchie Darkwah he would reach the opinion that much of the Bible derived from African texts, and find Maccabee came from an Asanti word for “one who talks his talk”.

As well as U Roy (“for his style”) and I Roy (“for his lyrics”), Macka loved Burning Spear, Abyssinians, and the Wailers. At age 15, someone burst into the youth club shouting “Bob Marley down the road!” Bob was in Wolverhampton visiting a cousin so Chris dashed to meet the great man. “Couldn’t believe how small he was!” he laughs “But he was powerful – you felt the man’s presence”.

On Hail HIM, the opening track on his new album, Macka speaks for the first time about a less welcome formative experience. He was caught up in a fight instigated by a group of white people. When the police arrived they blamed Christopher. He spent 3 months in a detention centre, an episode he’s keen not to glamourise. “But it got me even more conscious because I realised ‘Boy, the world no pretty so you have to stand up for yourself, stop hang around certain people and focus on the right thing’.” These days Macka B only enters prisons in his capacity as a mentor. “Enough people in prison are good people it’s just circumstances got them there. Some are there for herb. I also go to schools for so called ‘bad youths’. Some just need somebody to talk to, a male role model in their lives”.

Macka B backstage at One Love Festival 2015

Macka B backstage at One Love Festival 2015

In 1982 Macka’s youth club travelled to Jamaica where he finally met his siblings and attended a small dance in Montego Bay. “The people said ‘Macka B go hold the microphone’. I thought ‘This is where the great deejay them come from’ but I got a good reception. I said ‘I have to tek this thing serious now’.”

He was also looking seriously at his diet. He stopped eating meat after biting into a pie and thinking “This is an animal”. Today his partner, children and grandchildren are vegans. Over the years he has sung repeatedly about food. His album has a song titled Too Much Chicken – examining the difficulties Caribbean people have in giving it up. “I don’t know why they find it so hard” he ponders “For me it was simple”.

Macka B’s lyricism, underpinned by a melodic voice honed mimicking Michael Rose, began getting attention. While chanting on Exodus he joined a band with three singers called Pre-Wax, performing in the Midlands, Manchester and London. He was recruited to a second local sound, Skippy and Lippy, gaining the interest of Birmingham’s Wassifa, and touring the country.

In ‘83 he won a deejay contest at Bilston’s Rising Star club against Pato Banton and Ranking Ann. The prize was a slot on Radio WM Birmingham; which in turn led to a call from BBC community TV programme Ebony. Macka B started making a weekly appearance showcasing lyrics to future singles like Unemployment Blues – a comment on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

Macka had already voiced some dubplates with Pre-Wax and another anti-Thatcher tune Maggie’s Letter for London’s Sapphire Records (“A letter telling saying I could run the country better than her”). His recording career went national when a cassette of a Leicester clash between Wassifa and Saxon made its way to John McGillivray and Chris Lane at Fashion Records. The 1985 single Bible Reader received heavy play from Ranking Miss P on Radio 1.

Meanwhile, Macka’s Ebony appearances intrigued a fellow UK pioneer – Neil Fraser, AKA Mad Professor. He sent a message via singer Peter Culture asking the deejay to visit his Ariwa studio in Peckham. “He liked my lyrics and I liked his rhythms so we decided to do some work”. Their 1985 LP Sign Of The Times topped the reggae charts. “Before I was known in England. Now I was known internationally”.

Macka hit the road with Professor in Germany, Italy and France. It’s no exaggeration to say a generation of Europeans got into reggae through Macka B. “We had Germany locked! I always say we made the Germans jump to reggae. Even now they are jumping to reggae and me and the Mad Professor gave it to them”.

Macka B on stage at One Love 2015
Macka B on stage at One Love 2015

It was the start of a partnership that yielded 14 albums. Although they don’t work together much nowadays they’re still close – with a new disc in the pipeline. “Prof is a conscious person. That’s why we did so many albums. He wasn’t one to censor what I was saying. He knew I was talking sense”. By contrast, Macka recounts how, before joining Ariwa, he took the song Apartheid to a producer who asked him to tone it down saying “Apartheid might be gone soon. Nelson Mandela might be let out.” “This was the early 80s and he didn’t get out till the 90s. Really they didn’t want those hardcore lyrics”.

In 1988, Macka flew to Kingston, ostensibly to secure dubplates for Wassifa but also for vocal work. He linked emminent producer Jack Scorpio on Molynes Road and played him Sign Of The Times. Scorpio was impressed by the wordplay yet felt the UK steppers rhythms wouldn’t translate to the dancehall. He invited the visitor to his regular Thursday party outside the studio: where, despite a young Sanchez sharing the mic, there was sufficient demand for “the English Ras” to make Scorpio concede “Yuh pass the test”.

The next day Macka and Scorpio and cut a tune called Love It Jamaica. The popularity of this and two Ariwa combos with singer Kofi; Dread A Who She Love and Proud Of Mandela, led to radio airplay and, eventually, an appearance at Reggae Sunsplash 1991 just before Shabba Ranks. “It was like a dream for me to be appreciated where the deejay thing start, and get such a great reception”.

He recorded for Penthouse, Tony Rebel and Fatis Burrell and was even requested at short notice to sing Proud Of Mandela to the freed South African leader at the National Stadium. He had a flight booked to go home but “Cat Coore said ‘Macka you cyan leave the island until you perform in front of Nelson Mandela’. I had to do the tune and leave straight to catch my plane”. He even performed at the infamous ‘91 Sting where Supercat threatened the audience (“Me and my family had to run from backstage”).

It’s odd that this uncompromising stickler for culture would be so popular in Jamaica. “You just have to keep it real” he explains “They call me the great Macka B because of the lyrics. Anthony B said ‘You’re one of my big inspirations’. We give thanks that somebody from my humble beginnings can go to Jamaica and make a mark.”

Macka B has a reputation for travelling the world evangelising for reggae. Yet right now he is most excited about the UK, which he thinks is awakening to become the reggae stronghold it hasn’t been since the 90s. Did he fall out of love with Britain at that time?

“Not really, but there’s a world out there. New territories were opening and were more receptive. In England the vibes changed. The youths don’t realise the power of reggae. They’re always trying to bring in something else – today grime, tomorrow dubstep, the day after funky house.”

Mad Professor once said something similar: that UK youth always want to run from reggae. “Yeah they running from themselves. If you notice the gang war – they’re fighting somebody just like them – it’s a self-hatred thing that’s been instilled.”

“If you look at rock music it doesn’t really change much but young people put their experience into it. Oasis was like the Beatles. Black music in England is like ‘I can’t listen to what my parents listened to’. You go to other places and see young people coming to [roots] people who are 70 so it’s not an age thing it’s a mentality. But I feel it’s finally changing back again”.

On Hail HIM Macka B recalls experiencing the intergenerational power of reggae. One night in Austria in the 90s – he can’t remember the date because it was “so much of a dream” – he was asked to perform with childhood heroes U Roy and Burning Spear. “We hailed each other before the show and I was telling them how I respected them from a little youth. So I and U Roy did our part and then the great Burning Spear took his place and said “Calling on the stage U Roy and Macka B”. My foot started to tremble, going on stage with the great man there so I just ran on and did a little lyrics. As a youth with the sound system how we used to hold Burning Spear – Jah No Dead is one of my favourite tunes. The man called me on stage”. For once Macka B is lost for words.

At this point we turn from his history to his craft. He has spoken in interviews about using humour to sweeten his messages. It’s noticeable how, as we depart from facts and focus on methods and philosophies, he resists the notion of strategy or being reduced to any one thing.

“Sometimes humour can break down barriers. With some serious topics people put up a fence but if they hear that little bit of humour it relaxes and they start to think a little more. But some lyrics have no humour at all, it’s just ‘straight serious’. If I have a rhythm I don’t think ‘I want to do this humorous and that serious’ it just comes as a vibration. It’s Jah works”.

Talking to Macka B it’s clear that breaking down barriers is crucial. And because he often encounters young people at foreign festivals he likes to keep his writing simple.

“Things which are complicated are a lot of simple things put together. So if you can break them down it can make things easier. You can’t explain everything. You want to light a spark and make them go blaze the fire. If you just have a sentence of their language they take it in even more. The tell-lie-vision is bombarding the youths with madness so they need the messages to keep them sane”.

The instrumental music for his latest project was recorded when he was still a youth himself. He met Chris Peckings a few years ago after a show in Luton where Chris suggested Macka should voice some vintage rhythms sourced by him and his brother Duke. Their father George was a UK distributor for Studio 1 records and they’ve relicensed the biggest backings in reggae history for their productions. But for Macka B, bar a couple of Maytals favourites on singles Never Played a 45 and Medical Marijuana, they went deeper. Nora Dean’s psychedelic Angie La La for instance, used for the track Fire, is far from standard one drop.

“The thing about Peckings is they’re great at the record shop thing,” he agrees “They’re connoisseurs. If a man comes in for a tune you have to know the tune. Chris said ‘Macka B we a go put some riddims that are not the run of the mill’.

And some of them are rhythms that I loved anyway,” he continues “Like Wall Street by Jackie Mittoo or Every Knee Shall Bow. That’s why on Sound Man I say ‘I deyah on the riddim me grow pon’ because Exdous used to play a whole heap of Johnny Clarke. That’s comparable to Burning Spear calling me on the stage.”

Never Played A 45, on the Maytals immortal 54 46 has been out since 2012. A tribute to vinyl and a rebuke to laptop selectors Macka often performs it with 45 in hand.

“I got the vibes because it’s called a 45 and the rhythm is 54 46,” says the still mathematically minded emcee “I was in the shop listening and got memories of being a youth standing in a record shop using all my pocket money. I thought the youth nowadays are missing something. But then I realised vinyl is making a comeback. We give thanks we are able to teach certain things and the vibes of the universe is making it happen same time. I don’t believe in coincidence. I know people who will pay £10,000 for one 7 inch. That’s the power of the vinyl.”

Medical Marijuana, using the Maytals Hold On, was inspired by visiting San Francisco and finding California allowed herb on prescription. “It happened almost like the record but I had to spice it up a little” he laughs, perhaps referring to the scenario where a cop pulls him over, finds weed and lets him go, “My brethren showed me the card. I thought he was messing about. Because Rastafari has been saying marijuana is medicine from the longest time and the world is just waking up and realising the pharmaceutical business is a business”.

A consistent lyrical theme of the album, on tracks like Rasta Tell Them and One Life is the way mainstream consensus has accepted Rasta viewpoints but not Selassie’s divinity.

“Up till now!” he corrects with a smile “Five years ago if you asked me I would have said ‘Yeah people are saying vegan and ital lifestyle is the right way and too much meat is not good but the marijuana was not – you see? So maybe in a few years they will wake up to what we are saying about His Majesty. Before they were saying he’s a despot – trying to stain the character of the king – so many things come out of darkness that are revealed in the light – it’s only a matter of time before they say ‘Those Rastas were right again’.”